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INDICATIONS OF WAR WITH
Discontent of the Colonies. — A spirit of discontent had now for some time been growing among the American colonies because the British Government was unjustly taxing and in other ways oppressing them.
The British Parliament is to England what Congress is to the United States. Every State in our Union sends its representatives to Congress, and these representatives look out for the interests of their State and help make the laws which govern it. It was a recognized right of the English people at this time that no tax should be levied upon them except by vote of members of Parliament whom they bad chosen to represent them. As the colonies had no such representative, the act of Parliament in taxing them was plainly“ taxation without representation,” which was unconstitutional ; and against this the colonists rebelled.
Committees of Correspondence.—Committees of Correspondence were formed in the colonies for the purpose of learning the opinion of the people concerning the acts of Parliament toward the American colonies. When a letter of this purport came to the supervisors of Cumberland County, copies of it were made and sent to each town in the county, and a convention was called to meet in October, 1774. Here resolutions were passed similar to those passed in the Continental Congress, which was held some time previous to this and of which the next topic treats. The people of Cumberland County had not then heard of the acts of the Continental Congress.
First Continental Congress.-In 1774 a general congress met in Philadelphia, in Carpenter's Hall, to consider what action the colonies should take toward the mother country. They declared, among other things, that since they were not allowed representation in Parliament that they had the right to make their own laws and levy their own taxes in all cases except such as related to trade between the colonies and Great Britain and were for their mutual advantage. They condemned many of the acts of Parliament and said they would never submit to them. They also petitioned 'the king as “the loving Father of the whole People” to redress their wrongs.
Before sending the petition, Congress signed the articles of the “ American Association,” which declared that they would have no trade with England in any way unless their wrongs should be righted. The king paid no attention to the petition. On learning of these acts of Congress, Cumberland County in convention at Westminster fully endorsed them.
The Courts of Justice.—The courts of justice were now almost universally closed in the colonies except in New York, where for a time they refused to adopt the resolves of the Continental Congress. Although the people of the eastern portion of the grants had up to this time taken little part in the land controversy, as many of the towns had surrendered their original charters and repurchased new ones, they were now brought into closer relations with the grantees west of the mountains ; and thereafter their interests were much the same. They were as much opposed to the oppressive acts of Parliament as were the people situated west of the mountains; and when the New Yorkers, who were the king's servants, still persisted in holding courts in Cumberland County, they rebelled both against the king and the New York government.
Measures taken to prevent the Holding of the King's Court; the Result.—The administration of the courts of justice had long been insufferable in the County of Cumberland ; and the Whigs (those favoring the Continental Congress) resolved that the administration should no longer remain in the hands of the Tories (those favoring the king).
The time for holding the March term of court at Westminster, Cumberland County, was drawing near. It was expected that criminal cases against leading Green Mountain Boys would be taken up at this session ; and, without doubt, the judgments of the court would be unfavorable to them. For this reason many of the prominent settlers determined that the court should not sit.
Accordingly, forty citizens of the county went to the chief judge and tried to dissuade him from holding the court, but met with no success. After discussing among themselves different plans for preventing its sitting, they decided to permit it to come together and then lay before it their objections to its proceeding. A rumor now reached them that the court was planning to take possession of the court-house the day previous to its meeting, and prevent those from entering who were opposed to its sitting. To prevent this about one hundred citizens, armed with clubs taken from a neighboring woodpile, entered the court-house the afternoon of the day preceding the one on which the court was to be held, with the intention of remaining there until the judges should hear their complaints.
They had not been there long when the sheriff appeared accompanied by the officers of the court and a posse of armed men.
He demanded entrance, and, on receiving no answer, commanded all persons who were unlawfully assembled to disperse. They answered that they would not disperse, but would admit them if they would lay aside their arms, also declaring that they were there for peace and wished to hold parley with them.
The armed force now withdrew; and later Judge Chandler came to the court-house, declaring to its occupants that the arms were brought without his consent and that they who now held the court-house might do so till morning, when the court would convene without arms and hear what they had to say.
With this assurance the greater number of the Whigs went to their homes or to some of the neighboring houses for the night, leaving a guard in the court-house to give notice in case of molestation. About midnight the sentinel, who was posted at the door, announced that the sheriff and his posse were on their way to the court-house. Partially intoxicated the company advanced to within ten rods, when the command was given to fire. Three shots only were fired; but when again the command of “Fire !” rang out on the midnight air, a volley was poured forth which mortally wounded two men, William French, who died in a few hours, and Daniel Houghton, who lived but a few days afterward. The assailants then rushed forward and effected an entrance ; and, amid total darkness, a hand-to-hand conflict followed in which several of the Whigs were wounded and those who were not able to escape under cover of the darkness taken prisoners. These were thrust into the two narrow rooms of the jail, where they were kept without light or heat for the remainder of the night and a part of the next day.
The judges opened the court at the appointed hour but did no business, adjourning to meet in the following June. The judges, however, never held the session appointed, for this was their last meeting.
The Spreading of the News and its Result.— The news of the Westminster Massacre, so called, spread like fire in dry grass. Before noon of the next day several hundred armed men, burning with indignation, were on the spot. The prisoners were set free ; and their places at once filled by as many of the judges and officers of the court as could be found. A force of forty Green Mountain Boys, under the command of Robert Cochran, from the west side of the mountains, and others from the southern part of Cumberland County and Massachusetts followed, until in two days' time 500 armed men thronged the little town of but a single street.
A Committee of Inquiry chosen for the purpose sentenced the most blameworthy of the king's officers to be sent to jail at Northampton, and put many others under bonds to appear at the next court. It is not known that they ever came to trial, for the weightier matters of the Revolution soon engrossed the attention of the complainants, and the matter blew over.
The blood spilled at Westminster March 13, 1775, was virtually the first of the Revolution, having been shed by a few stanch Whigs who were acting in defense of the resolves made by the Continental Congress.